Review of Farley Mowat, The Desperate People.

["The North." Review of Farley Mowat, The Desperate People. Queen's Quarterly 56. 4 (1959-60): 677-8.]


In 1952 Mr. Mowat published The People of the Deer, written in anger at the plight – as he saw it in 1947-8 – of the Ihalmiut, the People of the Little Hills, a fragment of the inland Eskimo (Innuit).  Now, Mr. Mowat traces the fortunes of the Ihalmiut through the ten years between his first meeting with them and the time in August 1958 when he next saw them at Eskimo Point reduced to “a handful of confused, despairing individuals deported from their land, ignorant and apathetic to their future.”  Mr. Mowat’s object is to tell how in the course of time Eskimo families, tribes, communities were decimated by white man’s diseases; how they were edged out of their land and their primordial relation with the caribou destroyed by firearms and the cupidity of the traders; and how the police, government officials, and clergy, no less than the traders, failed to secure the lives and livelihood of a people nut numerous but simple, skilled, hardy, self-reliant, and honourable.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Innuit were perhaps the largest cohesive group of Eskimo in existence, and numbered about 2,000.  Unlike the coastal Eskimo, who draw their life from the sea, the lives of the Innuit depended upon a fine adjustment to the caribou which, providing clothing and shelter as well as food, made it possible for them to winter on the treeless Barren Ground.  Once that adjustment was broken their fate was sealed; once the caribou were diminished and became fickle, the process of attrition moved rapidly.  By 1920 the Innuit had shrunk to about 400; and of these the Ihalmiut, living north of Nueltin Lake and round about Ennadai, were the largest and most important group.  In 1929 the whole Nowleye River band of Eskimo died of hunger; by 1932 there were only 200 Ihalmiut altogether; in 1940 the last trader withdrew from the area; in 1942 forty-four people – a third of the total surviving population – died of starvation at Ennadai Lake.  In 1950-1 twenty-two people died of starvation at Padlei.

By 1946 all that was left of the Ihalmiut was a group of about 60 people, stubbornly clinging to their ancestral hunting grounds among the lakes north-east of Ennadai.  The final fate of that group can be baldly told from Mr. Mowat’s record of the names of all the people alive in 1946, all that were born since that date, and the fate of each up to September 1958.  In all 111 people are entered in the list; twenty-eight of these were born in 1946 or later.  Only fifty-three of the 111 were alive in 1958; of those who had died only eight had died of natural causes or at birth; twenty had died of exposure and starvation, seventeen of epidemic disease.  The story of the Ihalmiut in those ten years is a terrible one.  The caribou failed and would never recover.  The whole way of life of the inland Eskimo was shattered and no substitute could be found: even their self-reliance and spirit began to fail.  A few men on the spot, witnessing their distress – three young half-breed trappers, a group of Army meterologists at the Ennadai radio station, a post manager at Padlei – did what they could in providing food, shelter and clothing when, winter by winter, the situation became crucial; but they were improvising without experience or resources, and their efforts were never enough.  Sometimes in reply to request for help some food would be sent but no ammunition; and more often than not the lack of ammunition (no longer to be bought now the traders had left) was the most serious element in the Eskimo situation.  Attempts to solve the problem by moving the Eskimo were ill-advised; the removal to a fishing venture on Nueltin Lake – in the timber, among their ancestral enemies the Indians – was a failure within a matter of days; another planned migration took them into country where they knew there never had been and never would be caribou.  Except for one good season when the caribou returned, the story of the Ihalmiut is a relentless cycle of disease, death, despair, perplexity.  The story of Kikik’s murder of Ootek and her journey to Padlei with her five children shows to what crazy extremity their condition sometimes brought them.

Very occasionally – in the superb and horrible account of the ordeal of Kikik, and from time to time in the broken story of the conflict between Pommela and Owliktuk – Mr. Mowat, subdued momentarily by the circumstances of his tale and by the Eskimo themselves, writes with the reticence and strength of truth.  Then the Ihalmiut – in their small numbers, in the inconsequence of their setting and fate – become one of the many symbols that haunt us these days (very properly) with an acute sense of guilty: the symbol of what is gentle, disinterested, skilful, vulnerable, destroyed by predatory greed or allowed by carcinomatous indifference to die.  But out of the fourteen chapters in this book only three chapters, and parts of two others, reach that order of achievement.  For the rest Mr. Mowat feels impelled to harp upon vaguely substantiated charges of ignorance, neglect, and incompetence in high places.  Perhaps he is right: in fact, the ammunition did not arrive, the caribou failed, and the people suffered and died.  But stridency and the coarse emotive techniques of persuasion do not establish the reliability of a witness; and his attack loses much of its point when we are told at the end of the book of the excellent arrangements made for the Ihalmiut at Rankin Inlet in 1958.

That the fate of the Canadian Eskimo needs intelligent and compassionate handling is beyond question; and Mr. Mowat in his sympathetic understanding of this small group shows in what a delicate balance any successful solution must stand.  But he goes a very long way towards destroying a small but eloquent claim by his fretful and deliberate importuning of your sympathy, and by rough-hewing history and anthropology – and then the interpretation of contemporary fact and policy – to his own polemical purpose; in the end we begin to doubt and question everything he says about anything unless the evidence clearly comes (as in the story of Kikik) from another source.  The long unfocused purple patch which opens the book impresses Mr. Mowat so much that he repeats it (only slightly truncated) in an Epilogue.  The dullest and blackest parts of this uneven book are those where the author seems most self-conscious and is most deliberately trying to affect his reader.  It is a pity that Mr. Mowat’s genuine feeling for the People of the Little Hills should diffract him so often into the dreary gimmickry of blunderbus persuasion.  For the few well-written chapters show that the story of the Ihalmiut is noble and terrible enough to demand in a writer worthy of the theme the virtues of modesty, restraint, and dignity.